Though Gayle Fleming knew little about the plight of refugees in Darfur, in April she joined thousands of other area residents and human rights activists who marched to the U.S. Capitol and called for greater government intervention to end the ongoing genocide in the western region of Sudan.
At the rally, the Arlington yoga teacher was mortified by tales of the brutal ethnic cleansing campaign being waged by Sudanese government forces and the “Janjaweed” militias. After hearing about the conditions of the refugee camps, where more than 2 million displaced people are being assisted by international aid organizations, Fleming said she “felt the need to create a way for people to know more about this.”
She decided to use the popularity of yoga to induce Arlingtonians to learn about the genocide and to raise money for the Save Darfur Coalition.
“It’s important to get people off the yoga mat and get them to do some good in the world,” Fleming said.
LAST SUNDAY, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington— in coordination with Fleming and the Peace Initiative Network— sponsored a “Yogathon for Darfur,” during which more than 150 people participated in meditation sessions, heard lectures from specialists on Darfur and discussed ways to raise the community’s awareness of the situation in western Sudan.
The event raised more than $12,000 for the Save Darfur Coalition, an alliance of more than 170 faith and humanitarian organizations that provides direct assistance to refugee camps in neighboring Chad and advocates for sending U.N. peacekeepers to the region to quell the violence.
Since early 2003, more than 200,000 Darfur residents have been killed and hundreds of villages destroyed by government-allied militias. More than 3.5 million people in the region now depend on outside organizations for food assistance.
Yet the yogathon was more than just about raising funds for refugee camps; the goal was to raise awareness and inspire the participants to find their own personal ways to contribute to the cause, organizers said.
“It’s easy for people to just throw a check at the problem,” Fleming added. “But most people want to feel like they are making a difference.”
The first step is to simply better educate the general public about the genocide, said Jim Fussell, the executive director of Prevent Genocide Network, who spoke at the event.
“We have to get people to understand that this is not happening in some distant place. We are all connected to it,” Fussell said.
In his speech Fussell urged those in attendance to speak about Darfur with family and friends and to help raise funds through other organizations people belong to.
U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), who has repeatedly called for the Bush administration to take more concrete steps to end the genocide, also spoke at the fundraiser.
“From a diplomatic perspective, there is much that the U.S. and the international community could do to put pressure on the Sudanese government to stop the crisis,” Moran said in a statement. “But for concerned local citizens who can only follow the tragic events through the media, Saturday’s Yogathon for Darfur was an opportunity to personally get involved in the relief effort.”
To Lilian Penne, the lack of political will to stop the genocide has been disheartening. Penne spent time in Rwanda following the ethnic cleansing campaign that killed more than 800,000 people in the mid-'90s, and is disturbed that Western governments are again doing little to halt a genocide in Africa.
Her solution is for more people to speak to their members of Congress about the situation in Sudan, and write letters to both the Bush administration and local newspapers.
“There’s not enough pressure from the people,” Penne said.
But events like Yogathon for Darfur are a good start, she added.